Can Tom Mulcair lead a movement? The test has changed from 2012, when he won the NDP leadership on the notion that he could convince voters he was fit to govern. Now, when he steps to the podium on Sunday morning at the party's convention in Edmonton, he has to inspire. He has to tell New Democrats he brings purpose.
That's what many New Democrats await. It's also key to the job now: A third party needs drive in modern politics, where party loyalties are weak and unmotivated supporters drift away. Every party needs to be something like a movement now. The problem for Mr. Mulcair, and the NDP, is that the movement of the moment and the political party seem miles apart.
Right now, politics on the left is being driven by unapologetic positions and big words like revolution and crisis. In the U.S., it's Bernie Sanders packing supporters into his Democratic race by promising a political revolution. At this weekend's NDP convention, the talking point is whether the party should embrace the "Leap Manifesto," penned by activists who argue Canada faces a crisis, and must reject all new oil pipelines and levy billions in taxes to dramatically expand green infrastructure and social spending.
It isn't just the old divide between left and moderates. There's also a vein of the anti-politics Mr. Sanders represents, the desire to be bold and blunt. "I think the idea is we need new ideas that go beyond kind of what's the acceptable political discourse right now," said Jason Schwede, a 26-year-old McGill law student who proposed a youth-wing resolution to dump Mr. Mulcair.
But that risk-taking clashes with the party's project in recent years. The NDP, under not just Mr. Mulcair but Jack Layton, sought to reassure, to win over middle-class voters. Mr. Layton accepted Canada's part in NATO, Mr. Mulcair reassured voters he wouldn't raise their taxes.
That was okay until last fall's election. The hope of the Orange Crush was revolution enough. Mr. Layton moved the party forward, and his optimistic 2011 campaign seemed like a movement, too. Now after a loss, many want new inspiration.
Mr. Mulcair knows it. He's moved away from insisting on balanced budgets, stepped up the opposition to the TPP trade deal he adopted late in the 2015 campaign, and sounds more like Mr. Sanders, raging against big banks, "corporate giveaways" and the rich.
"Frankly there's something rotten with an economic system where Canadian CEOs make 200 times the average wage of their workers, and then give themselves fat bonuses for cheating their workers out of their pensions," he told the United Steelworkers in Montreal on Tuesday. "It's no wonder so many working families feel like the deck is stacked against them."
The deck seems stacked against Mr. Mulcair, too. It's hard to spend years reassuring the public you're a moderate, touting yourself as a proven administrator, and then convince your party you can inspire with your zeal.
It's doubly hard when the current yardstick clashes with your past statements, and many in your party. Mr. Mulcair tried to nod to the Leap Manifesto by asserting, in an interview this week, that he'd work to keep oil in the ground if that's what the party votes for – an obvious conflict with the positions of Rachel Notley's Alberta NDP government.
The Leap is, after all, dramatic. That's the point. "We're challenging decades of political clichés. So we want to spend like drunken sailors," said Avi Lewis, one of the signatories of the Leap, who is at the convention in Edmonton to push the NDP to embrace the Leap. "We need a shift in our sense of what's politically possible."
The Leap Manifesto starts with an assertion that Canada is in deep crisis, and calls for dramatic action to address climate change and undo inequality. It calls for rejecting new oil pipelines. It opposes most trade deals. It points to ways to raise perhaps $50-billion or $60-billion a year, from new carbon taxes, financial-transaction taxes and other levies to pay for a social-democratic state.
That won't get a full embrace at his convention. It will get a nod – a resolution to study it. Not all agree climate change is so deep a crisis that everything must change now. "I don't think our members would see it that way," said Ken Neumann, president of the United Steelworkers. Climate is important, but workaday issues like pensions and protecting steel jobs from foreign competition come first.
Some MPs roll their eyes: There are always people in the NDP with manifestos, one said. Their last election debacle didn't come from being insufficiently radical, but from failing to offer anything clear to voters. They promised national daycare and pharmacare, but years from now. They didn't paint a picture of change.
But Mr. Mulcair still needs a movement. It probably won't be the Leap. But the NDP needs some of what its supporters represent. Look at Mr. Lewis, whose grandfather David led the federal NDP, and whose father, Stephen, led the Ontario party. Until this week, he didn't go to party conventions. His Leap co-authors intended the manifesto to be non-partisan. They'd like it to influence the Liberals. The Green Party endorsed it. If there's anything the NDP needs now, it's to inspire potential supporters enough that they don't splinter to other parties.
That makes movement-building a test the NDP can't ignore. It's still hard to tell whether Mr. Mulcair will get the support he needs to survive on Sunday. Most delegates don't seem fervent. The measure may come down to whether he can convince delegates he can be fervent and inspire a movement.